See them before they’re gone: birds are migrating south this weekend

Blackpoll warbler perched on a branch By Stubblefield Photography/Shutterstock

Ah, the signs of fall. The leaves are changing, you’re bringing in the floating dock, and birds are on the move, set to travel epic distances in their search for warmer weather. The blackpoll warbler is one such miraculous migrator—a species that can be easily overlooked in spring, says Stuart Mackenzie, Bird Studies Canada’s Director of Migration Ecology. “They move en masse in the fall and their migration is astounding,” he says. “Per gram they are longest distance migrant in the world. They breed in the high boreal forest and overwinter in the Amazon basin, a trip that’s ten to twelve thousand kilometers each way.”

Now is the time to see warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes as they set off on their incredible journeys south. “Right now, we’re at the peak of neotropical migrants,” says Mackenzie, who is based Long Point, Ontario. These birds are in Canada and the US in the summer season, and then will head to Central and South America for our winter months.

Want to know if the blackpoll warbler is passing through, or if not, what birds to look for in your area? Mackenzie says the best thing to do is to see if you have a local bird observatory near you, such as the Long Point Bird Observatory, the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory, and the Pelee Island Bird ObservatoryBSC’s Canadian Migration Monitoring Network has a map showing locations across the country.

There are two reasons to hook into your nearby bird station. “It’s a good way to know what’s happening locally,” Mackenzie explains. “At Long Point, for example, we have a board that shows recent sightings.” And many observatories have weekly newsletters, so you will get regular updates as to what birds you might see moving through your area. But, he adds, you also get to know your local bird community or organizations, and the issues on which groups are working.

Another option, and one that allows you to contribute to ongoing research projects, is to look at Ebird.ca, the Canadian hub of eBird. The project, which is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project. The site allows you to keep track of your bird lists and photos, find more birds by looking at sightings from nearby “hotspots”, and when you upload your observations, you’ll be contributing to research and conservation. It will even help you get better at identifying the birds you see by offering you a checklist of likely birds, based on your location and date. If you think you’ve seen something rare, a local expert can try to verify the finding. The project allows bird enthusiasts all over the world to collaborate with experts and the resulting observations help all types of bird studies.

One of the questions researchers are investigating is whether climate change is having an effect on the timing of migrations. Migrating birds are driven to relocate by a combination of factors, including the length of the days, temperatures, and a decrease in food availability. “Those are the triggers,” explains, Mackenzie, “but really there’s an ingrained genetic programming, which is probably influenced in part by those triggers.” However, in the spring, for instance, birds appear to be arriving earlier than the historical dates, which may result in their arrival times not lining up with food availability. If this “mismatch hypothesis” bears out, it may have large conservation implications for birds. 

With their group exodus and iconic V-formations, migrators send us an annual reminder to help out, get involved, and keep our eyes on the skies.

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